Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



Classic love tragedy opera gets a fresh retread, with fine attention to singers' strengths and acting.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND OPERA/CORY WEAVER - Maya Lahyani as Carmen in Minnesota Opera's performances of "Carmen." Lahyani performs the role when it opens at Portland Opera on Nov. 5.

French composer Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen" has probably been responsible for turning more people on to the art form than any other single work. This three-Kleenex tale of a hot gypsy who wins the love of a local soldier with tragic results, is packed with sensuous poetry, catchy melodies (the Habanera) and rousing choruses (and the Toreador Song). "Carmen" is a crowd pleaser with opera companies across the world, a kind of all-year-round "Nutcracker" that moves tickets, merch and hearts with equal ease.

But how to freshen up such an old chestnut? The great American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, having sung the top roles on the world's best stages, successfully directed it for the Minnesota Opera and Glimmerglass Festival. That production is coming to Portland for just three shows (Nov. 5, 11 and 13, Keller Auditorium ), with a different director but the same concept.

Pamplin Media Group talked to the conductor, Michael Ellis Ingram, about his view from the pit.

"What makes this production quite unique is that it was conceived by someone who's been singing the role her entire life. It's actually very unusual for someone onstage who's following directions, to then have the chance to hop onto the other side and give directions and shape all of those things that maybe were missing in past productions," Ingram told Pamplin Media.

He says Graves's goal was to strip away the some of the tropes, so the psychology and the emotions of the characters become real people.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND OPERA/CORY WEAVER - This refreshed production of 'Carmen' isn't all castanets and red dresses.

Ace of Spades

Ingram lives in Germany and is familiar with gypsies and Roma people. He takes a sympathetic approach to a group who are usually looked down on in Europe. That's how he sees Carmen's Romany peers in this "Carmen."

"They're in Spain but they're not they're not Spanish, they have something different, something deeper. They can see the future, they can read cards, they can look at a person and read the person's thoughts," said Ingram, referring to Carmen drawing the Ace of Spades, the card of death, which certainly moves the plot along.

Ingram sees Roma people in Europe forming "a community in a city where they don't have birth right, but they found a way to make a home."

He adds, "They came from Romania and Hungary, generations ago, so they are a people without a country. If you're not a citizen, how do you get an address? How do you get a bank account? How do you get a job? You can't get anything that the rest of us have. That's why they have no choice but to beg for money and find make camp outside if you can't rent an apartment."

The stage and costume look is contemporary, with militarized police costumes.

"You have these outsiders who are living on the fringes of the city, but also the policeman, politicians and other people in a corrupt hierarchy, that are enabling these wandering visitors to make a living. The politicians are cutting deals on the side, the system is corrupt from top to bottom."

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND OPERA/CORY WEAVER - Ole! This refreshed production of 'Carmen' keeps the matador chic.

Music, maestro

As a conductor, Ingram comes open minded. "I am always interested in what is the director's vision? And what are the strengths of the actors?"

He tells the actors on the first day of rehearsal he hopes they remember this as the production of "Carmen" that spoils them.

"Because I want you to feel free to play your role the way you want it, and I will support you in that," Ingram explained.

If, say, a singer wants to luxuriate and hold a high note for a long time, but they run out of breath, that's a problem that needs fixing.

"I always find a way to corral them so that they don't trip themselves up," Ingram said.

The lead in this show, Maya Lahyani, is special.

"Maya has the most wonderful style of acting, you can't take your eyes off her. And it's not because she's doing these bombastic things, she has a subtle, slow burn energy which is just mesmerizing," said Ingram.

As for how he does this, Ingram says that ideally the singers see him but never look at him.

Ingram said an exception is the quintet in the second act. "It is diabolically difficult to sing and extremely fast, it's a little bit like popcorn popping, they have to be interlocking with each other. That's where I will probably not look at the orchestra at all, I will just focus on the singers."

He added, if someone knows the opera, they will have the feeling of seeing it for the first time.

"And if they are seeing it for the first time, they will recognize all of the tunes, they will think 'Oh I know this tune from a ring tone, I know this from that commercial …"

It's a hefty slice of global musical heritage.

"It was international from the start, it's a French composer writing a piece about a Romany woman living in Spain," Ingram said.

Digital access will be available for a limited time on Portland Opera Onscreen for $50.

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